“In spring 2014, I was a visiting artist in Cairo, Egypt. I had been coming to Cairo for eight years, glimpsing the regimes of Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. This time, I arrived in the aftermath of the Rabaa Massacre, in which a thousand demonstrators protesting Morsi’s overthrow by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi were killed, and 2000 more were injured. Sisi would soon run for President with no real opposition, and his election was already inevitable. Still, in the run-up to voting, the military clamped down. Artists and journalists were suspect, as were many others (between 2013 and 2017, 60,000 people were detained*). Friends told me that I risked arrest if I used camera equipment in public.
I was living in the Zamalek district on the island of Gezira, across the Nile from Tahrir Square. Frustrated by the constraint on my ability to photograph the city, I began to shoot with my iPhone in its black plastic case resting on the black plastic window-ledge of whatever public transportation I happened to be taking. Eyes directed forward, phone pointed 90° out the window, I clicked the shutter without looking in the viewfinder. Over the course of my five months in Cairo, I shot 1,418 images.
These photographs capture street life from the embassy district of Zamalek and the grand Parisian boulevards of Downtown, through office and industrial zones—where, for a few months, posters and billboards portrayed Sisi as a stern general in uniform, only to segue to campaign materials picturing him as a benign CEO in a business suit—across a military training sector, and on to the unfinished mall-and-villa enclave of New Cairo to the east of the city center. And they document travel in the other direction, to the west, through miles of informal apartment blocks, windowless and uninhabited off the Ring Road, and on to the Pyramids of ancient Giza, surrounded by construction cranes.
The photographs are filled with strange digital artifacts, sometimes blurry, cockeyed or blasted or smeared with color as the iPhone struggles to focus and manage depth-of-field from a moving vehicle. Other images are crisp and surprisingly composed—given that, in effect, the phone itself decided what to “see.” Some picture Cairenes going about their lives; others are eerily empty. I think of these aleatory photographs as laying out a map, a randomized microhistory of urban development from Pharaonic times to the contemporary, increasingly authoritarian regime. The project is both a symptom and a demonstration of the compulsion to make images—even though I don’t know quite whose compulsions are at stake. These oblique views are partly my own, and partly those of the smartphone’s technology, and those of the state at a particularly tense historical moment. And partly the images were created simply by the rhythms of traffic in a city of twenty million people.” (Conley, 2018)